For a much longer time than Americans Africans have viewed fake news as a cancer threatening their societies. Across the continent Africans have experimented with censorship as the remedy.
Fake news and cell phone journalism is my #5 pick for the top stories in Africa in 2016, and I have to admit this is because I’m not African, since I doubt they would put it in the Top Ten. But as an American I’m hopeful we might learn something from them.
Fake news in Africa is perfectly illustrated by an incident in the late 1990s in Kenya. Kenya was a relatively peaceful place during the regime of Daniel arap Moi from 1978 – 2002. EWT’s tourism programs were growing through the roof.
The first half decade of Moi’s lengthy rule was a relatively benign continuation of his predecessor’s quiet dependence on the west, especially America. As the Cold War ended Third World leaders were put on notice that America’s attentions and aid would be reduced. Moi like many other African clients of America reacted by becoming more authoritarian.
By the middle of the 1990s he had clearly turned into a dictator, his legislature rarely passing laws and his judiciary serving entirely at his own discretion. He was neither a benevolent nor malevolent dictator, basically just a benign dictator enriching himself and his extended family at the expense of the country’s development.
In typical self-serving fashion, America (and the west as a whole) pulled back its aid and interests when the Cold War collapsed, complaining that the countries it had propped up with unaccountable aid for decades weren’t democratic. Beginning with Reagan and enhanced by the Clinton administration, African missions in particular were instructed to dole out aid only in return for promises of more democratic policies.
The Clinton State Department forced Moi to hold the first democratic elections in 1997. Nobody liked Moi. He hadn’t been terribly mean, just terribly restrictive, a real burden on the imaginations and creativity of Kenyans. There was no question he would lose.
Why did he win?
America spent millions to promote the election throughout the country. One of the genius ideas was to create radio stations in rural areas that didn’t have them. In those days local languages, however, were all that were spoken, but America said that was OK. We’ll give you the radio station and feed you the news, and you translate.
We have no idea of the body of mistranslated news, but we do have one document that proves fake news: the national ballot.
There were a half dozen candidates, each represented by an animal and color since so much of the population in rural Kenya remained illiterate. Large square boxes as on any ballot preceded the candidate as the option to vote for them.
But in numerous rural radio stations speaking in unrecognized local languages, Moi’s operatives got the presenters to tell people to put an “X” in the box of the candidate that you didn’t want. Guess who got the most X’s? Guess who won?
In 2016 Tanzania continued to issue licenses for new radio stations in rural areas, but the license forbids news presenting in local languages.
During a mini civil war in Uganda in November, a mainstream Kenyan TV journalist documented some of the killing on her phone and was arrested for “abetting terrorism.”
American evangelicals have long run tours in Africa to wring out a few more pennies for themselves from the poor. In September the South African Minister of Home Affairs simply banned one Arizona Baptist preacher from the country.
Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa are each radically different from one another, their citizens enjoying widely different levels of liberty. But in 2016 each one comfortably and without public concern censored what they defined as fake news.
Western societies felt they were immune to fake news, because the veracity of information is thought to be increasingly inviolable as a society grows increasingly literate. Third World societies have only recently emerged from illiteracy, so fake news there is more likely to be believed.
Until now. America has nurtured ignorance over decades of defunding public education and it has empowered those new ignorant classes of people with a democracy easily manipulated by money and fake news. Should we consider the African remedy?